It's the Third Saturday in October: Tennessee Vols vs. Alabama Crimson Tide Preview (10/21/23)

Recently: Tennessee (#17/15, 5-1, 2-1) won a 20-13 slugfest against Texas A&M last weekend in Knoxville. The experience was slightly disorienting to a fan base that has become accustomed to Josh Heupel's brand of high-octane offense, but oddly refreshing in that the Vols found a way to win that wasn't simply "score a billion points." 

Alabama (#11/8, 6-1, 4-0), meanwhile, saw a 24-6 lead whittled down to just 24-21, but held on to beat Arkansas at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Both games were similar in that it felt like each home team was in control, yet struggled to put the visitor away for good. 

Previously on Vols vs. Tide: In one of the most cathartic wins for Vol fans this century, Tennessee won a 52-49 thriller on a Tennessee Saturday Night in Neyland Stadium last October. The win ended a 15-year drought against Bama in a series known for its streaks. In fact, in the last 100 years there have only been seven "one-off" victories, i.e., games where the win did not start a streak of  at least two, and most often four-plus games in the series. 

Five Factor Preview: 

There's some interesting similarities between last week's A&M game and this one. Both TAMU and Alabama have stout defenses capable of causing havoc. Led by Dallas Turner--who with 9.5 tackles for loss and 7 sacks (1st in SEC) is on pace to out-perform Will Anderson's stats from 2022 when Anderson swept the major national defensive awards--the Tide has recorded at least 6 TFLs and 4 sacks in each of their last five games. Additionally, Alabama has five interceptions so far this year after totaling seven picks in all of 2022. On top of giving up just over a field goal per scoring opportunity, Alabama is giving up a total of just 16 points per game (12th nationally, 2nd SEC). Bama has held 20 of its last 35 opponents to under 100 yards rushing, and three times this season has held opponents to under 80 yards. 

While Tennessee has created scoring opportunities on offense this season, they have not done a great job of capitalizing, scoring just over a FG on average each opportunity. Alabama has the opposite problem, struggling to create opportunities, but with a higher PPO. The number that should have Vol fans excited is that 17% havoc rate on Bama's offense. The Tide are 129th out of 133 FBS teams in sacks allowed with 31 total and 4.43/game. Likewise they are 121/133 in TFLs with 50 total and 7.14/game. Tennessee has been one of the best teams in America in both sacks (4.0/game, 4th nationally) and TFLs (8.7/game, 4th nationally). Let slip the Vols of war. 

Bama Offensive Concepts:

As always, these numbers come from Alabama relies on running the ball between the tackles, with their top 3 run concepts and nearly 35% of their total offensive calls and over 30% of their total yards coming on different flavors of inside runs. By far the concept with the highest success rate is inside power, specifically duo dive. Example from last week's Arkansas game: 

There's nothing fancy about duo. Double teams at the point of attack with one lineman from each double working up to the next level. When blocked well the RB will end up in the secondary and the rest is up to him. Bama runs this play with a 50%+ success rate and over 6 yards per attempt, so it is definitely a play to be looking for Saturday. 

In the passing game, Alabama is just like the Vols' last two opponents in favoring flood concepts. In fact, flood is the most-used pass concept across the SEC in 2023. You can check out this same feature in the South Carolina preview or the Texas A&M preview if you want to know more about flood. Instead I'm going to highlight what I think is Bama's most dangerous pass concept: smash. Despite being called less than half as often as flood, smash has garnered Alabama's offense almost as many yards for a much higher per-play average. 

Smash uses an underneath route, such as a hitch or quick out, along with a corner route. This puts the flat defender in conflict by making him choose between gaining depth with the corner route (opening up the hitch/out) or staying with the shallow route (creating a window behind him). Typically the backside slot receiver will also run a post route, making the safety choose which route he's going to cover. You can imagine how difficult this concept is to defend. Actually, don't imagine it, watch: 

The good news for a defense like Tennessee's is that all of Bama's top passing concepts (flood, smash, all verts) are on the slow-developing side, potentially giving the Vols' front time to harass Jalen Milroe just like they harassed Spencer Rattler and Max Johnson the last two games. 

Prediction: Tennessee absolutely can win this game. If Tennessee continues to dominate the run game, the and the Vol defense keeps their torrid pace of sacks and TFLs going, the Vols could win another slugfest like they did against A&M. History is on the Vols' side too, as a win in this series, like UT got last season, almost always kicks off a streak of victories, most often a streak of four or more games. However, a week ago I wrote that home field in the SEC is (IMO) worth a touchdown. If I really believe that, it's going to be hard for UT to overcome that deficit against a team that it's otherwise so evenly matched with. This hurts to type, but it's likely Alabama wins this game. I hope you get to tell me how wrong I was when we're lighting cigars Saturday night. 

Extraneous: It's a song about Tennessee.


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